As a physician, the fear of a malpractice lawsuit will always be present. But knowing you are doing all you can to prevent one from occurring can help set your mind at ease. Providing excellent clinical care can, of course, reduce the likelihood of an error that leads to a lawsuit, but the clinical side is not the only area to focus on.
For more insight into the non-clinical risk-management strategies every practice and physician should follow, we asked experts to weigh in. Here are four ways you can decrease your risk of a lawsuit.
PRIORITIZE PHYSICIAN COMMUNICATION
Great communication between physicians and patients can reduce malpractice risks in many ways, says Jeffrey D. Brunken, president of physician insurer MGIS. When you have a trusting rapport with patients, studies show that they are more likely to disclose all of their relevant medical information. Of course, that reduces the risk of a diagnostic error or misstep that could lead to a lawsuit.
Perhaps even more important to risk management, great communication fosters a strong relationship with patients, which, also, according to several studies, reduces the likelihood a patient will sue if a problem arises, says Brunken. "Errors are always going to happen," he says. "Generally, reducing risk involves, 'How do you reduce the risk when bad things do happen?'"
Here are a few key communication strategies Brunken says physicians should employ when interacting with patients:
• Don't dismiss (or appear to dismiss) the patient's concerns.
• Listen carefully.
• Set realistic expectations.
• Provide clear answers.
"Those things are always to let the patient know, 'Hey, I'm listening to you. I'm hearing you. You can trust me. Tell me more,'" says Brunken.
Sue Larsen, president and director of education at Astute Doctor Education, Inc., which provides online education and resources specializing in physician interpersonal skills, says physicians should also be aware of, and actively avoid, four communication missteps that increase the likelihood of a lawsuit. She says avoid interactions that make the patient feel: devalued, misunderstood, deserted, or misinformed.
For tips on how to avoid each of these scenarios, see sidebar, "Interactions that Lead to Lawsuits."
ASK STAFF TO STEP UP
Just as physicians' interactions with patients are critical, so are staff members' interactions with them, says Larsen, noting that poor customer service leads to poor patient satisfaction, which increases the likelihood of a lawsuit. "It's highly important that every interaction provides an interaction that leads to patients feeling that they are going to somewhere that is highly competent and values their contribution," she says.
Here are four ways to ensure that your staff is not putting you at risk:
1. Require excellent professional etiquette. Staff members need to be cognizant that their conversations with other staff, such as discussions about kids, TV shows, and so on, may be overheard by patients, says Robin Diamond, an attorney and registered nurse who serves as the chief patient safety officer at malpractice insurer The Doctors Company. Those conversations, especially if inappropriate, can be very off-putting to some patients.
2. Make sure staff members explain delays. Long waits, with little or no explanation, are very frustrating to patients. To reduce the frustration, staff should explain delays to patients and share regular updates, says Larsen.
3. Provide training on difficult patient encounters. Angry or demanding patients may dish out their frustration on staff, so they play a big role in whether these situations are handled appropriately. Diamond recommends holding training sessions in which staff and physicians role play difficult patient encounters so that everyone is comfortable with and knowledgeable about how to handle these situations.
4. Ask staff to serve as your eyes and ears. Front-desk staff should observe patient reactions and emotions as they are leaving your practice. If patients leave upset, staff should inform the physicians and/or managers, who can then call the patient later to check in, says Brunken. That check- in call, he says, could be the difference between a damaged patient relationship, and a more positive one.